Leaving West Yellowstone to head to Bozeman, Butte or Glacier NP? You don’t have to follow the crowd. There is a fascinating scenic and less traveled route that starts 22 miles out of West Yellowstone and takes you on an amazing journey on US Highway 287. Just a few extra miles takes you on an amazing backroad of adventure. Travel past bison, big horn sheep and elk habitat, take in views of Hebgen Lake and marvel at the forces of nature unleashed at Quake Lake. Drive through the incredible Madison River valley where “big sky” comes to life and discover the great western cowboy town of Ennis, Montana with galleries, shops, lodging and restaurants. From there, take a dip in the “Water of the Gods” at the Norris Hot Springs before you drive the Bear Trap Canyon to Bozeman or head north to take in the Lewis & Clark Caverns or connect to US 90.
To begin your route, make a left turn off State Hwy 191 onto US Hwy 287 as you leave West Yellowstone. Once on US 287, the crystal-blue water of Hebgen Lake dazzles with its picture-perfect mountain backdrop. There are recreation options here for boaters and fishermen. Take a break at the West Fork of the Madison and park your RV or pitch a tent at the Slide Inn or or Madison Bend Campground. Or look for the marker and spend the afternoon exploring the secrets of Cliff and Wade Lakes. Just before the lake you can stop for a hearty breakfast anytime of day at the Campfire Lodge Restaurant and Cabins and dine by the rushing Madison River.
Another 10 miles brings you to Refuge Point and the USFS Quake Lake Visitors Center where the aftermath of a 7.4 magnitude earthquake (1959) and the ghostly shadows of the trees and cabins in the bottom of the lake are visible below the enormous mountain rock slide. This is a place for stretching your legs and taking a short walk to read the story of that fateful night.
If you are inclined, it doesn’t take long to string up the rod and angle for a bit of Madison River fishing – there are numerous public fishing access points from West Yellowstone to Ennis including the dramatic Palisades cliffs, $3 Bridge, Windy Point and Story Ditch. Pick up a few tips on the hot flies and best spots at the Beartooth Fly Shop.
Up until now, Highway 287 paralleled the Madison River as the elevation dropped from over 6000’ to closer to 5000’. Now the valley begins to widen and views are expansive and breathtaking. Travel past the historic ranches that helped to build the valley in the late 1800’s and try and imagine spending the winter in one of the old settler buildings that still dot the landscape.
A large talc mine – the source of the finest talc in the world – is seen on the east side and the popular McAtee Bridge Fishing Access is to the west. Some great hikes start at the trailheads on the east side of the valley…Indian Creek, Bear Creek, Sphinx Mountain or Jack Creek. This part of the valley is winter range for elk herds that number in the hundreds and was the location for filming the mini-series “Lonesome Dove – part 2”. Proghorns, or antelope as they are commonly called, can be seen in small herds on the flats below the alluvial benches.
Through the “dot” town of Cameron and the Blue Moon Saloon and another 10 miles brings you to El Western Cabins & Lodges with their signature lawns, cabins and giant spruce trees. Welcoming guests since 1948, this is an authentic Montana log cabin experience – with all the comforts. Stop in for more than a night – you are just a mile from Ennis and you can keep busy here for several days with historic western towns, fly-fishing, caverns, hiking, horseback rides, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, shopping and dining.
As you head north out of Ennis and pass through McAllister, MT take note of the post office – it was established in 1902. Over the “hill” now – actually a mountain pass – to Norris and the “Water of the Gods” Hot Springs. Take in a little blue grass music while you soak in the thermal waters.
You can continue your journey from Norris to the north to the interstate with a stop at the Lewis & Clark Caverns. Or to head east, travel State highway 84 through the picturesque Bear Trap Canyon and on to Bozeman. Come back soon!